Saturday, March 26, 2005

Dhaka international airport…..

Travails of travel thru Dhaka "international airport"

With the mention of international airports the pictures of swanky corridors, restaurants, beautiful airhostess shay-shaying their trollies and those big and beautiful duty free shops fill up your mind. But then there are few international airports which serve the purpose of just spewing out people and sucking in people as just some charly checkpoints.

There are two such airports that come to mind immediately which I have misfortune of visiting very frequently.

One is Kolkata International Airport, though it has had recent facelifts in its floor marbles but rest remains in its old form and spirit. Lethargy and beaurocracy are the backbone of this behemoth. Normally international airports are like the face of the nation in a way, a foreigner forms opinion about the nation with this first impression at its airports. The most inefficient and highly unpresentable lot of immigration officers definitely don’t help our cause in anyway and to top it up kolkata international airports lacks even basic amenities like functioning clean toilets. I once had to make do with stinking toilets and no toilet paper rolls in departure lounge toilet.

The frustration of it is multifold, first you can not shake even a hair on the skins of people who run or actually run down this place and second is embarrassment that at this very moment in some foreigner’s mind, image of India is turning pale.

The second one is Dhaka international airport. This airport has atleast better face in terms of presentation but then it cant help being our cousin in the subcontinent. We have differently clad but same species of people in immigration.

Here the biggest problem lies in the home air lines of this country, oddly named Biman which means Aircraft ( a commodity which it actually lacks in good measure it seems). I have to take this airlines, by sheer virtue of its existence, for my connection to and from India.

Normally we have problems of delays or smart alec dealings with this airlines. For example your flight is at 4 pm and when you land at airport and check in they will not be there till 1 hour before ( you have to land up atleast 2 hours before) the departure to take your check in ( this maybe special for Kolkata flights, as it is poor cousin of other international flights). As you look around for people and check in counters, your enquiries will fall on deaf ears as the staff has other important matters to discuss than to listen to you or take any action.

So when you check in you would ask by habit, “is the flight on time?” and you would get prompt reply, yes!!! So you would go thru rigours and reach the waiting lounge and go thru the not so exhiliariting durty free merchandise and one small counter doubling as café cum sweet shop .

As the time for your departure draws nearer you are anxiously looking at one small ancient TV screen to look for the flight information or gate announcement. Sadly it will show status as check in only!! As it is few minutes away from your scheduled departure you are agitated and waiting to hear atleast some announcement on the PA system ( trying to de-cipher each and every Bangla word with your limited bangla vocabulary)…. But then they have other pressing matters than to announce your non-existent flight by then.

You are now trying locate in the crowd some white shirted people who wear those useless ribbons on the shoulder (your guess is that they must have something to do with your flight as a similar creature at the check in counter beatifically had pronounced your on time departure). These creatures can be found in 2 situations of uncertain existence, one would be highly mobile state, with a walky on hand and flitting around the lounge, the other is lounging around with no purpose on the waiting lounge chairs, or their designated seats and one area called transit lounge enclosure.

Since you cant bear your uncertain state with no silver line in the horizon or for that matter your aircraft either, you would be desperate enough to intercept the fleeting creatures with their walkies first. He would first pretend you don’t exist and if you are persistent enough to register on his radar he would brush you with some answers like “Thaken ( wait)” ( as if you hadn’t done enough of that already) or tell you to look at screen for information. You draw his attention to the fact that you are beyond these stages and now instant need of nirvana or boarding your flight, whichever comes first!! He would now be lost and leave you with the wait state and vanish.

By now you would see some other fellow sufferers pacing around the television screen and pray for it to turn up miraculous healing letters in the form of gate number or some ETD info.

Normally after some uncertain hour or so miracle would happen and your imminent departure would be announced. Being An Indian you are used to this 1-2 hours fluctuation in the time space continuum and you would board your flight thanking your stars.

But this particular evening in Dhaka raised the bar to a new height completely.

We had chosen the last flight of Biman to Kolkata, to finish all the work and head back to India for a few days. My colleageue was to take early morning flight to Bangalore next day as he was heading to make most important decision of his life , to get married. I had relatively easier schedule.

As usual we arrived at the airport and made it to waiting lounge. To our pleasant surprise we came across another Indian acquintance who was also heading back to Kolkata. But it was depressing to learn that his flight was scheduled at 4 pm ( he had come at 2 pm for that there) and at 6 pm there was no news on his flight. The last information given was his flight and ours was supposed to be combined and we would fly at 7 pm . So we sat together and waited for the clock to strike seven. It struck seven and true their form Biman airlines had no information on the little tele of theirs. Now people were doing the pacing around routine but the number was double as it was two flights combined passengers in the lounge.

At 7.30 I had enough of it so I walked upto tele and to my horror I see that now there are two different ETDs on both flights one was 2030 and the other was 2330. I couldn’t believe my eyes and in that dazed state I decided to break the peaceful slumber of Biman personnel at transit lounge to reconfirm if their was a mistake on tele. The biman personnel told me that if tele god sayeth so .. so it is…. I was now feeling doubly persecuted, first on account of not being clubbed with the earlier flight and second as to 2330 seemed like beyond redemption time slot to me.

In the meantime we see that a crowd had formed around the Biman desk and there were lot of angry voices. So after watching from a distance we finally made it to the epicenter of this commotion and we see one Biman employee animatedly informing people that we all shall be rescued from our current state soon and now the first flight would leave at 2115 and second one at 2330 and we all have been given dinner facility at the lounge.

It came to light that they were running short of aircrafts and were trying to manage something to make our announced schedules happen. We all headed to dinner lounge and dinner arrived in 45 minutes or so( as if there was instruction to kill time or better kill us), better less said about this fare they laid out for us.

Finally the first flight people were given a gate number ( pearly gates of heaven finally opened to receive them I guess) and we were left to our fate. Killing time wasn’t easy as my colleague was getting edgy about his imminent decision on marriage combined with potential disaster of missing connecting flight if Biman didn’t put on us Indian soil before morning.

First flight finally left around 2200 or so… by then lounge was getting empty as all other flights had departed. My friend decided to take a nap. As it drew close to 2300 I now had this black thought creeping in that finally they will cancel our flight and send us back. So I made to the area where Moses of Biman had announced our earlier commandments. To my horror I find that our Moses has been replaced by another white shirted creature and there were again some more infidels around shouting for their salvation.

I heard one man say that take me to your minister and I will speak to him. Another one saying what are you doing here if you cant do anything. The barrage of polite insults would make a normal man bolt from the seat and spring with rage or some kind of action. But the two gentleman sitting their were given training in Gandhi’s monkey school maybe as they said nothing relevant to help anyone there.

-They said they don’t know anything.

-So question.. if you don’t then who does?

-Some flight planning people do that..

-And where are they ?

-They are in different building.

-Take us there !!

-We cant.. you cant go back past immigration!!

-Can you do anything ? if you cant then connect us to someone who can….!!

He goes thru motions of dialing phones and asking for someone who isn’t there.

He says the person is not there.

-People ask what are you doing here.. call that man here.

-Person says it is not his fault and biman has left him to here to face the music.

We are now drowning and frustration and uncertainty and this man has no idea as to what to do to help him or us.

Then he informs us in desperation that last night also same thing had happened and this is regular situation with the last flight to Kolkata.

To our horror last night flight had left at 0040 in the morning!!

And he says(as if it was supposed to ease our sorrow) that they have two options, they are expecting a flight from Sylhet to arrive and if the crew of this flight wont mind to do another flight they would take us to Kolkata or The flight which had gone to Kolkata same flight would come back to take us!!!

By now we are so frustrated that we needed someone to vent it out on, someone said take us to minister (as if that man would do something, probably he is responsible for this state of affairs) and then someone said lets talk to daily star ( a local news paper). The second one was more plausible idea. So I ask do you have the number ? no!! I needed to somehow get this done. I went around to look for this news paper ( any news paper would have done). I think it should be murphy’s law of some kind, when you need to shit, paper goes missing. I tried to get it bought from outside and lo behold there was no way buy it either !! so I called my colleague at his house ( at 2330) and asked him to get the numbers of the new paper. I even called a local friend who probably was sleeping by then ( as he didn’t pick up the phone).

I came back to check if other brave souls had by then found their way thru to minister or the newspaper. Sadly the barking voices were louder than their bite.

Maybe it was the talk of this newspaper report or some divine intervention; they announced our gate number for the boarding lounge. In the light of the things it looked like a ploy to drive us away from their sight and coup us into some secluded area while they tried to catch up on some sleep. As we were leaving the waiting lounge we could see the immigration officer on night duty sprawling themselves to retire for the night ( the first such sight since my childhood days when I saw drivers and conductors sleep in bus and we had to wake them up for our early morning bus out of town).

As we were making our way into the boarding gate and getting security frisking done ( that was the most welcome frisking of my life) I got thru to the number of this newspaper. Maybe the tide of bad times was finally turning as I found a reporter on duty and for the first time I found someone during the entire evening with some patient ear and intelligent mind. The best thing about him was he first appologised for this harrowing experience we had to face and said that he will call Biman and enquire into the matter. I asked then one of the barking voices also to talk the reporter online, our man explained the whole thing in Bangla with liberal sprinkling of the names of high and mighty hew knew etc.

Inside the boarding lounge as we waited and heard this barking voice go about explaining his connections et al, my mind was still filled with doubt if we will fly or not. And then they beckoned us to board the bus to take us to aircraft, was I happy to see this aircraft!! When we entered the aircraft I checked with airhostess which flight it was and she told it had come from Sylhet. I couldn’t stop myself from thanking her for agreeing to fly this section at such a late hour. I think this is the first time I had some respect and appreciation for the Biman crew ( less said the better about my earlier brushes with them). As we finally took off at 0045 my mind was still doubtful if the flight would reach Kolkata or they would dramatically turn us around back to Dhaka.